From New World Encyclopedia

Moromi, a stage in the brewing process.

Sake (酒; pronounced sa.kɛ ), also spelled saki, is a Japanese word meaning "alcoholic beverage." In English it has come to refer to a specific alcoholic beverage brewed mainly from rice, which is called nihonshu (日本酒, "Japanese alcohol") in Japan, though in the right context it can be referred to as simply sake. Sake is produced by the multiple parallel fermentation of polished rice. The production of sake in Japan began sometime after the introduction of wet-rice culture. The first written record of sake dates from the third century C.E., and the first reference to its manufacture from the eighth century C.E.. The first sake, kuchikami no sake, (口噛みの酒) or "mouth-chewed sake," was made by people chewing rice, chestnuts, millet, and acorns and spitting the mixture into a tub, where the enzymes from saliva converted the starches to sugar. This sweet mixture was then combined with freshly cooked grain and allowed to naturally ferment. The modern process for producing sake began with the discovery of kōji-kin (麹菌 Aspergillus oryzae), a mold whose enzymes convert the starch in the rice to sugar, which is simultaneously converted to alcohol by yeast.

Description of sake

Sake is widely referred to in English as "rice wine," but this designation is not accurate. The production of alcoholic beverages by multiple fermentation is more characteristic of beer than wine. Also, there are other beverages known as "rice wine" that are significantly different from nihonshu. Sake is often mistakenly called a wine because it is light in color, slightly sweet in flavor, and has an alcoholic content of up to 18 percent.

The quality of sake is determined by the degree to which the rice is polished before brewing, and by the additives used during the brewing process. In Japan, where it is the national beverage, sake is served with special ceremony- gently warmed in a small earthenware or porcelain bottle called a tokkuri, and sipped from a small porcelain cup called a sakazuki. At the beginning of the twentieth century, taxes on the sale of sake made up 30 percent of Japan's tax revenue; today taxes on the sale of sake make up about three percent of annual government revenue.

Other Beverages

The word "sake" can also refer to different beverages in different regions of Japan. In Southern Kyūshū, sake usually refers to a distilled beverage, sweet potato shōchū (imo-jōchū 芋焼酎). Shōchū is a distilled spirit made with Aspergillus oryzae|kōji (麹 or 糀), Aspergillus kawachii. In Okinawa, sake refers either to shōchū made from sugar cane, or awamori (泡盛, literally "heaping bubbles"), or kūsu (古酒, literally "ancient drink").


The production of sake began in Japan sometime after the introduction of wet-rice culture in the third century B.C.E. The first written record of sake dates from the third century C.E., and the first reference to its manufacture from the eighth century C.E.

The history of sake is not well documented and there are a number of theories about how it was discovered. One theory suggests that the brewing of an alcoholic beverage using rice started in China, along the Yangtze River, and was subsequently exported to Japan. Another theory traces sake brewing back to the advent of wet-rice cultivation in the third century B.C.E., when a combination of water and rice, if left untouched for a while, could have resulted in molds and fermentation. The first sake was called kuchikami no sake, (口噛みの酒) or "mouth-chewed sake," and was made by people chewing rice, chestnuts, millet, and acorns, and spitting the mixture into a tub. The enzymes from the saliva allowed the starches to saccharify (convert to sugar). Then this sweet mixture was combined with freshly cooked grain and allowed to naturally ferment. This early form of sake was probably low in alcohol and consumed like porridge. This method was also used by indigenous peoples to manufacture cauim in Brazil and pulque in central Mexico. Chinese millet wine, (xǐao mǐ jǐu, 小米酒), made in this way, is mentioned in inscriptions from the fourteenth century B.C.E. as an offering to the gods in religious rituals. Later, from approximately the eighth century B.C.E., rice wine, mǐ jǐu (米酒), with a formula almost exactly like that of the later Japanese sake, became popular in China.

Centuries later, chewing was rendered unnecessary by the discovery of kōji-kin (麹菌 Aspergillus oryzae), a mold whose enzymes convert the starch in the rice to sugar, and which is also used to make amazake (sweet fermented rice porridge), miso (fermented soy bean paste), and soy sauce. Rice inoculated with kōji-kin is called "kome-kōji" (米麹), or malt rice. A yeast mash, or shubo (酒母), is then added to convert the sugars to ethanol. This development can greatly increase sake's alcohol content (to 18-25 percent of the volume); as starch is converted to sugar by kōji, sugars are converted to alcohol by yeast in one instantaneous process. Kōji-kin was most probably discovered by accident. Airborne kōji spores and yeast would land on a soupy rice-water mixture left uncovered outside, and the resulting fermentation would create a sake porridge not unlike the kuchikami no sake. Some of this mash would then be kept as a starter for the next batch.

Experimentation and techniques imported from China sometime during the seventh century C.E. gave rise to higher quality sake. Sake eventually became so popular that a brewing organization was established at the Imperial Palace in Kyoto, then the capital of Japan. The brewing of sake became a sophisticated art, and sake brewers developed many new techniques to improve their product. During the Heian Era (794-1185), a three-step addition in the brewing process was developed, a technique which increased alcohol content and reduced the occurrence of souring.

For the next five hundred years, the quality and techniques used in brewing sake steadily improved. A starter mash, or "moto," which allowed the cultivation of the maximum amount of yeast cells before brewing, came into use. Brewers also isolated kōji for the first time, and thus were able to control with some consistency the saccharification (converting of starch to sugar) of the rice.

Through observation and trial and error, a form of pasteurization was also developed. Batches of sake that began to turn sour due to bacteria during the summer months were poured out of their barrels into tanks and heated. However, brewers did not understand that returning the pasteurized sake to the bacteria-infected barrels would only make the sake more sour and, by the time fall came, the sake would be unpalatable. Effective use of pasteurization in the brewing of sake would not be understood until Louis Pasteur made his discoveries five hundred years later.

During the Meiji Restoration, laws were written that allowed anybody with the money and knowledge to construct and operate their own sake breweries. Within a year, around 30,000 breweries sprang up all around Japan. However, the government began to levy more and more taxes on the sake industry, and slowly the number of breweries dwindled to 8,000.

Most of the breweries that survived this period of time were set up by wealthy land owners. Land owners who grew rice crops would have rice left over at the end of the season and, rather than letting it go to waste, would send it to their breweries. The most successful of these family breweries still operate today.

During the twentieth century, sake-brewing technology made many improvements. The government opened a sake-brewing research institute in 1904, and in 1907 the very first government-run sake tasting competition was held. Yeast strains specifically selected for their brewing properties were isolated, and enamel-coated steel tanks became available. The government hailed the use of enamel tanks because they were easy to clean, lasted forever, and could be successfully sterilized (the government considered wooden barrels "unhygienic" because of the potential bacteria living inside the wood). There was another reason for the government advocacy of steel tanks: the wood in wooden barrels absorbs a significant amount of sake (somewhere around 3 percent) that could have otherwise been taxed. This age of the wooden barrel in sake brewing ended, and their use in brewing was completely eliminated.

At the time of the Russo-Japanese War in 1904-1905, the government banned the home brewing of sake. At that time, tax on commercially-brewed sake made up an astonishing 30 percent of Japan's tax revenue. Since home-brewed sake was untaxed, it was thought that banning the home-brewing of sake would increase sales of commercially-brewed sake and more tax money would be collected. This put an end to "doburoku" (home-brewed) sake, and this law still remains in effect today, despite the fact that taxes on the sale of sake now make up only three percent of government income.

When World War II erupted, the sake-brewing industry was dealt a blow as the government clamped down on the use of rice for brewing. Most of the rice grown during this time was used for the war effort, and this, in conjunction with many other problems, doomed thousands of breweries all over Japan. Previously, it had been discovered that small amounts of alcohol could be added to sake to improve aroma and texture. By government decree, pure alcohol and glucose were now added to small quantities of rice mash, increasing the yield by as much as four times. Today 95 percent of all sake is made using this technique, left over from the war years. There were even a few breweries that were able to produce "sake" that contained no rice at all. Understandably, the quality of sake during this time suffered greatly.

After the war, breweries slowly began to recover, and the quality of sake gradually improved. However, new alcoholic beverages such as beer, wine, and spirits, became very popular in Japan, and in the 1960s beer consumption surpassed sake for the first time. Sake consumption continued to go down, but in contrast, the quality of sake steadily improved.

Today, the quality of sake is the highest it has ever been, and sake has become a world-renowned beverage with a few breweries springing up in China, Southeast Asia, South America, North America and Australia. More breweries are also experimenting with older methods of production.

While the rest of the world may be drinking more sake and the quality of sake has been increasing, in Japan sales of sake are still declining and it is uncertain if the exportation of sake to other countries can save Japanese breweries. There are currently around 1,500 breweries in Japan right now, compared to about 2,500 in 1988.


Sake is often mistakenly called a wine because of its appearance and alcoholic content, but it is made in a two-step process similar to that for brewing beer. Production begins with koji, a preparation of fresh, steamed rice and Aspergillus oryzae, a mold that converts the rice starch to fermentable sugars. The koji is kneaded (traditionally by hand) into a smooth paste and placed in a vat with more rice and water. After fermenting for about four weeks, this mixture becomes moto, with an alcoholic content of about 11%. More koji, steamed rice, and water are added to the vat, and undergo a second fermentation which lasts about seven days. After resting for one more week, the sake is filtered and bottled. Sake is produced by the multiple parallel fermentation of polished rice. The process of milling removes the protein and oils from the exterior of the rice grain, leaving behind starch. A more thorough milling leads to fewer congeners (chemical derivatives) and generally a more desirable product. “Multiple fermentation” refers to the multiple steps in the fermentation process — the starch is converted to sugar by enzyme action, and then the sugar is converted to alcohol by yeast. This is typical of beverages created from starchy sources, such as beers.

Sake brewing differs from beer brewing in two significant ways. In sake brewing, enzymes for the starch conversion come from the action of a mold called Aspergillus oryzae (kōji), but in beer brewing the enzymes come from the malt itself. In sake brewing, the multiple processes of fermentation occur simultaneously in the same step, while in beer these processes occur in different, serial steps.

After fermentation, the product is heavily clouded with grain solids and is generally filtered, except in the case of nigori sake. Generally, the product is not aged because consumers prefer the flavor of the fresh product, which degrades quickly in the presence of light, air, and heat. A few varieties of aged sake serve a niche market, however.

In Japanese, a sake brewery is called a kura (蔵, "warehouse").

Types of Brewing Process

By varying the brewing process, many different types of sake can be created. Categorized by brewing method, there are several types of sake:

  • Kimoto (生酛) is the traditional, orthodox method for brewing sake which has been in use for at least three hundred years, though it is very rare today. The mash is hand beaten and made into a paste which then ferments.
  • Yamahai (山廃) is a traditional method of brewing sake introduced in the early 1900s, where the starter or "moto" is left for a month to allow it to sour. The method was originally developed to speed production time, however, now it is used to impart a higher acidity and complex flavors.
  • Sokujō (速醸) is the modern sake which is made by adding a small amount of lactic acid to the mash to speed the production time. Sokujō sake tends to have a cleaner flavor than Kimoto or Yamahai.
  • Namazake (生酒) is sake that has not been pasteurized and is best served chilled, and may be made with any of the above ingredients, or brewing processes.
  • Genshu (原酒), supposed to be undiluted junmai sake, around 18-20 percent alcohol by volume. Most genshu is honjōzō-shu to make it more economical, however, the method of sake brewing is growing in popularity among premium brands as well.
  • Muroka (無濾過), means unfiltered. This type of sake is made as traditional seishu (not nigorizake), but does not go through the charcoal filtering, so there is a small amount of cloudiness. In recent years, muroka nama genshu sake is growing in popularity because it has a flavor profile large enough to complement full-flavored western foods.
  • Nigorizake (濁り酒), is cloudy sake. The sake is passed through a very loose weave to separate it from the mash. It is not filtered any further and there is considerable rice sediment in the bottle. Before serving, the bottle is shaken to mix the sediment and turn the sake white or cloudy.
  • Doburoku (濁酒) is the classic home-brew style of sake and is traditionally a cloudy milky color, as the most delicious flavors are found in the white residue. Doburoku is created by adding steamed rice at the end of fermentation, starting a second fermentation and raising the alcohol level. It is also unpasteurized. Please note that although the kanji for doburoku and nigorizake are the same and both are opaque, they are in fact different styles of sake, with doburoku being the "chunkier" of the two.

By creating a starter-culture of micro-organisms, a higher-quality brew is possible. The starter-culture, called "moto" (酛) is stored at 5-10°C, allowing the lactic acid micro-organisms to become dominant in the culture. Lactic acid is important to flavor and prevents unwanted bacteria. The rice, kōji, and water are added at three separate stages. The mixture is called moromi (醪 or 諸味), and grows in mass by three additions. By initiating a brew with a starter-culture, the alcohol levels of subsequent batches of moromi are slightly increased.


There are two basic types of sake; futsū-shu (普通酒), "normal sake"; and tokutei meishōshu (特定名称酒), "special designation sake." Futsū-shu does not qualify for any special designation; it is the equivalent of table wine and represents over 75 percent of all sake produced. The tokutei meishōshu, or "special designation sake," is distinguished by the degree to which the rice is polished and the added percentage of jōzō alcohol, or absence of such additives.

There are four types of tokutei meishōshu (actually six, due to mixing and matching the junmai and ginjō varieties).

  • honjōzō-shu (本醸造), with a slight amount of distilled alcohol added. The distilled alcohol helps pull some extra flavors out of the mash. This term was created in the late 1960s to describe the difference between it (a premium, flavorful sake) and cheaply-made liquors to which large amounts of alcohol were added simply to increase volume and/or give it a high alcohol content.
  • junmai-shu (純米酒, literally "pure rice wine"), made purely from rice. Prior to 2004, the Japanese government mandated that at least 30 percent of the rice must be polished away, and no alcohol added, if the sake was to be considered junmai. Today, it can represent any sake milled to any degree, as long as it does not contain any additives or distilled alcohol.
  • ginjō-shu (吟醸酒), rice weight polished to 50-60 percent.
  • daiginjō-shu (大吟醸酒), rice weight polished to 50 percent or less.

The term junmai can be added in front of either ginjō or daiginjō if no alcohol is added, to result in either junmai ginjō or junmai daiginjō. However, distilled alcohol often is added in small amounts to ginjō and daiginjō to heighten the aroma, not to increase volume, so a junmai daiginjō without added alcohol is not necessarily a better product than daiginjō. In fact, most brews that win the gold medals at the Hiroshima Kanpyōkai (one of the most prestigious judging events) cannot be called junmai due to the small amounts of alcohol added.

In addition, there are some other terms commonly used to describe sake:

  • kuroshu (黒酒), sake using unpolished rice (brown rice), more like the Chinese production method.
  • koshu (古酒), aged sake. Most sake does not age well but this specially-made type can age for decades, turning the sake yellow and giving it a honeyed flavor.
  • taruzake (樽酒), sake aged in cedar barrels. The barrel aging gives this type its characteristic spiciness. Taruzake also refers to sake casks broken open to celebrate the opening of buildings, businesses, and at special occasions. As the cedar barrels impart a flavor to the sake, premium sake is rarely used for this type.
  • seishu (清酒), the official name for Japanese sake, but excluding nigorizake and doburoku.
  • tei-seihaku-shu (低精白酒), sake with a low rice-polishing ratio.
    Generally and traditionally, it has been said that the lower the number of "seimai-buai"; rice-polishing ratio (see below) is, the better the potential of the sake is. This is true for the majority of sake at the present time, but over the last few years, there has been a new trend to design sake intentionally with a high rice-polishing ratio, such as 80 percent, and to produce characteristic flavor of sake at the end of the process, mainly to preserve the scent of the pure rice.
  • shizuku-dori (雫取り), sake which is separated from lees without external pressure by hanging moromi bags and allowing it to drip slowly.
  • tobin-gakoi (斗瓶囲い), sake which is pressed into separate 18-liter bottles, usually using the shizuku-dori method, each containing 18 liters. The use of individual bottles allows the brewer to select the best sake of the batch for shipping.
  • shiboritate (搾立て), sake which has been shipped without the traditional six-month aging and maturation period. The result is usually a more acidic, "greener" sake.

Some other terms commonly used in connection with sake:

  • kasu (粕), the sake lees left after filtering, used for making tsukemono (pickles), cuisine (sakekasujiru, etc.), livestock feed, and for making shōchū.
  • nihonshu-do (日本酒度), = (|1/specific gravity|-1) x 1443
     Specific gravity is measured on a scale weighting the same amount of water at 4°C and sake at 15°C. This means the sweeter the sake is, the lower the number gets. Originally the nihonshu-do “0” was the dividing point between sweet sake and dry sake. Now this point is +3. Most sake varies in nihonshu-do between sweetest -30 to most dry +15
  • seimai-buai (精米歩合), the rice polishing ratio, meaning the left over weight after polishing. Generally, the lower the number, the better the potential of the sake. However, some recent variations like "tei-seihaku-shu" (see above) don't fit this traditional formula.

Serving Sake

Sake can be served in a wide variety of cups; here is sakazuki (flat saucer-like cup), ochoko (small cylindrical cup), and masu (wooden box-like cup).

In Japan sake is served cold, warm or hot, depending on the preference of the drinker, the quality of the sake and the season. Sake is one of the few alcoholic beverages that is regularly consumed hot. Typically, hot sake is consumed in winter and cold sake is consumed in summer. As heating serves to mask the undesirable flavors of lower-quality sake, it is said that the practice became popular during World War II to mask the rough flavor of low-quality sake resulting from scarcity of quality ingredients.

The most common way to serve sake in the United States is to heat it to body temperature (37°C/98.6°F), but professional sake tasters prefer room temperature (20°C/68°F), and chilled sake (10°C/50°F) is growing in popularity.

Sake is served in shallow cups, called choko. Usually sake is poured into the choko from ceramic flasks called tokkuri. Other, more ceremonial cups, used most commonly at weddings and other special occasions, are called sakazuki. The influx of premium sakes has inspired Riedel, the Austrian wine glass company, to create a footed glass specifically for premium sakes such as ginjō and daiginjō. Drinking from someone else's sake cup is considered a sign of friendship, or an honor to someone of lower status.

Another item used by some traditional sake drinkers is a box, called masu, traditionally made of Japanese cypress. In some of the more traditional Japanese restaurants, as a show of generosity, the server may put a glass inside the masu (or put the masu inside a saucer) and pour until a large amount of sake overflows and fills this secondary container.

Aside from being served straight, sake can also be used as a mixer for cocktails, such as the traditional Japanese tamagozake sake cocktails known as saketinis, or the modern American drink, “sake bomb.”


In general, it is best to keep sake refrigerated in a cool or dark room as prolonged exposure to heat or direct light will lead to spoilage. Sake stored at room temperature is best consumed within a few months after purchase.

After the bottle of sake is opened, it is best to consume it within two or three hours. It can be stored in a refrigerator, but it is recommended that the sake be finished within two days. This is because once premium sake is opened, it begins to oxidize, which noticeably impacts the taste. If the sake is kept in the refrigerator for more than three days, it is best to use it for cooking or marinating food.

Daiginjō-shu, sakes aged like wines, should be stored at low temperature, traditionally for between three and five years. The taste becomes more smooth after even half a year of aging. As most ginjō-shu are made in spring, half-year aged sakes are referred to as "achieving aki-agari (autumn growth)." When aged for more than ten years, the taste and smell come to resemble sherry, and the color becomes light brown. There are also vintage sakes; however they are not sold in ordinary markets.

Ritual Uses

Sake is often consumed as part of Shinto purification rituals (compare with the use of red wine in the Christian Eucharist). During World War II, kamikaze pilots drank sake prior to carrying out their missions. Today barrels of sake are broken open (kagami biraki) during Shinto festivals and ceremonies or following sports victories: this sake (called iwai-zake, literally "celebration sake") is served freely to all to spread good fortune. Sake is also served during the light meal eaten during some tea ceremonies.

At the New Year, Japanese people drink a special sake called toso, a sort of iwai-zake. It is made by soaking tososan, a spicy Chinese powdered medicine, overnight in sake. Even children sip a portion. In some regions the first sipping of toso is taken in order of age from younger to older. The history of this tradition dates back to the ninth century, when this type of sake was introduced under emperor Saga.

ISBN links support NWE through referral fees

  • Aoki, Rocky Sake: Water from Heaven Universe Publishing, 2003. ISBN 0789308479
  • Eckhardt, Fred Sake USA: The complete guide to American sake, sake breweries and homebrewed sake. Fred Eckhardt Communications, 1992. ISBN 0960630287
  • Gauntner, John Sake Handbook (2002). ISBN 0804834253
  • Harper, Philip. The Insider's Guide to Sake Kodansha International, 1998. ISBN 4770020767
  • Harper, Phillip and Haruo Matsuzaki. The Book of Sake: A Connoisseurs Guide. Japan: Kodansha International, 1995. ISBN 4770029985

External links

All links retrieved December 22, 2022.


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